Lindsay Avner of Bright Pink

Lindsay Avner radiates strength, fearlessness, and determination. As founder and CEO of Bright Pink, Lindsay has devoted the last five years to building a non-profit organization dedicated exclusively to educating high-risk young women about prevention and early detection of breast and ovarian cancer. Her passion for her work stems from very personal, life-altering experiences.

At the age of 23, Lindsay tested positive for a gene mutation that indicated she had an 87 percent risk of developing breast cancer, and a 54 percent risk of developing ovarian cancer. Fresh out of college and busy settling into a new job, Lindsay’s plans for the future quickly took on a very serious nature.

Breast cancer had affected three generations of women in Lindsay’s family, and after multiple rounds of rigorous tests, she realized that she did not want to spend her life plagued by fear, waiting for a positive diagnosis. Instead, Lindsay bravely chose to undergo a bilateral prophylactic mastectomy. At the time, she was the youngest patient in the nation to elect the procedure.

While striving to educate herself about her own cancer risks, Lindsay found an abundance of resources for cancer survivors but very little information for young women like herself. Thus, the idea for Bright Pink was born. Lindsay began drafting a business plan and within two years her vision became a reality.

Today, Lindsay shares her amazing, inspiring journey and commitment to a cause close to her heart.

Full name: Lindsay Avner
Age: 29
Current title/company: Founder and CEO of Bright Pink
Educational background (school, training, majors, degrees, etc.): B.A. in Psychology, University of Michigan
Year you started Bright Pink: 2007

Tell us about the journey that led you to start Bright Pink.
My grandmother and great grandmother died a week apart, both from breast cancer at the ages of 39 and 58, before I was even born. When I was twelve, my mother was first diagnosed with breast cancer and ten months later with ovarian cancer.  We are so lucky that she survived both.

In May 2005, I underwent a genetic test that told me I tested positive for the BRCA1 gene mutation, placing me at up to an 87-percent lifetime risk of developing breast cancer and up to a 54 percent lifetime risk of developing ovarian cancer.
I was devastated and terrified but tried hard to see the information as more of a blessing than a burden. I moved to Chicago and enrolled in a high-risk screening program, but even with the best tools out there, I felt as though I was just waiting to be diagnosed with cancer instead of doing something to actually prevent it.

Just 15 months later at age 23, I made a very personal decision to remove my healthy breasts in order to reduce my risk of developing breast cancer to less than one percent. I was the youngest patient at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York to make such a decision. It was during my journey that I realized the lack of resources for women in my specific situation—young women who weren’t survivors but were at high risk for developing breast and ovarian cancer and those who wanted to take charge of their health. The idea for Bright Pink was born, and our original website launched on January 2, 2007.

What gave you the courage to go ahead with a bilateral prophylactic mastectomy at the young age of 23?
In all honesty, I couldn’t take the long, grueling appointments. The mammograms, ultrasounds, clinical breast exams, MRIs, blood tests. I would go into each appointment and hold my breath, hoping they wouldn’t find something. After getting the news that everything was clear, I would breathe a sigh of relief but soon after begin worrying about the next appointment. I didn’t want to wait to detect cancer. I wanted to do everything in my power to reduce the chance of me ever developing breast cancer. The decision to have the surgery was a personal one, but I can say for certain it was absolutely right for me.

What was your first job out of college and how did you land that position?
I was an Assistant Brand Manager at Unilever, working on hair care and deodorant brands. Throughout college, I was fortunate enough to have spent three summers in brand-related internships with Bath and Body Works. When senior year rolled around, I aggressively sought interviews with big CPG companies in marketing functions. My first job was truly the best preparation anyone could ask for, because it gave me a tremendous amount of responsibility early on and the opportunity to learn from some of the smartest in the business. My approach in seeking out a job was to learn from the best, joining a company that invested in young people and gave a tremendous amount of responsibility early on, so that I could roll up my sleeves and begin to have a meaningful impact from the get go. I am a big believer in practical learning. So much of what you do at work can’t be taught through a textbook. Ultimately, I spent three years at Unilever. I am still very close with many colleagues and mentors from there and can confidently say I draw upon experiences from those years each and every day in my current role as CEO at Bright Pink.

How did you go about starting your own organization?
Throughout the year of testing, surveillance and surgery, I was really frustrated with the lack of resources for high-risk young women. There were so many resources for breast and ovarian cancer survivors but none specifically for young women at high-risk. When I was through with my own healing post-surgery, I felt a strong responsibility to do something to make the journey better for other young women like me. The organization would be unique and fill a gap in the breast/ovarian health landscape. I knew nothing about starting my own organization, so I studied and prepared as if I was getting ready for the test of a lifetime.

I went to the bookstore and bought seven books on how to write a business plan. I divided the business plan into 12 sections and committed to writing one each weekend. From the SWAT analysis to the competitive landscape, doing the research and getting my thoughts on paper was the best initial exercise to go about refining the idea and clearly defining who we were as an organization, what we would do, and equally important, what we would not do. I still have that 39-page document and look back on it every now and again.

Even though some things have changed as we have grown and developed in the last six years, it is nice to realize how true we have stayed to the original vision I set forth. During this process, I would literally talk about Bright Pink to everyone and anyone who would listen. When a friend of a family friend got wind that I wanted to start a non-profit, she convinced the CEO of her St. Louis-based marketing agency to generously take the project on as a pro bono engagement. We had a designer, account director, and copywriter. It was surreal to have the chance to come up with such fabulous branding for the organization from the beginning. In the end, the agency donated more than $50,000 of pro bono services and Lauren, our original designer who initiated the engagement, is now on staff with us part-time. Another friend of a friend, Chumpot, worked at a digital agency and offered to program our first website. He still manages our site today. A lot of people are responsible for Bright Pink’s success, and I am so proud to still have individuals like Lauren, Chumpot and many others as part of our inner team.

When it was time to launch the site, we held a bar party at Stone Lotus and raised $11,000 in twenty-dollar bills. We used these funds to file for all of our registrations and cover the associated legal fees. It was all about leveraging each experience, connection, and success to open more doors for the future.

Can you tell us a little bit about your day-to-day work life?
I guide the strategic direction and oversee the operations for Bright Pink. Each hour is different. One hour I may be focused on developing a new program with a corporate sponsor, while the next I will have a meeting with three genetic counselors to work on the national expansion of our Breast/Ovarian Health 101 educational workshops.  I touch all aspects of the organization (administrative, development, marketing, programming) every day. I’m never bored!

Bright Pink is a national non-profit organization unlike any other cancer support community. What do you hope it serves to do for women all over the country?
Bright Pink encourages women to “be bright” with their health—to be smart, be positive and be in control of their breast and ovarian health. We have a warm, sisterly approach and seek to educate young women about breast and ovarian cancer risk and strategies for prevention and early detection. We also provide support to high-risk individuals as they navigate their individual journeys. We are trying to reach an entire generation of young women who don’t have cancer and do everything in our power to make sure that they don’t develop the disease or are able to detect it at an early, non life-threatening stage.

What did it take for you to become comfortable with the aspect of fundraising within a non-profit? Did you hire a team to raise funds for Bright Pink, or did you do it yourself?
At first, I felt worried I would be putting people in an uncomfortable position, but I had to quickly get over that. I found that most individuals actually want to find more meaning in their lives, and all they need is simply an invitation to engage. Instead of asking for money, I usually focus more on educating people about our programs, how they are different and how they are saving countless lives each day. I spend time ensuring our programs are top-notch and putting our girls and the mission first and foremost. Nine times out of ten, people get so excited about the impact we are making that they want to give.

Each of my eight full-time staffers touches fundraising to some extent, but I will say it was a tremendous win to hire Kathleen Ralston, our VP of Development and Strategy, this past May to formally lead our fundraising efforts. She spent many years in political fundraising and was the Director of Major Gifts for the United Way in Chicago. I know she has what it takes to truly take us to the “next level” in this arena.

Bright Pink has partnerships with some prestigious companies, including Orbit, American Eagle Outfitters, and eBay. How did you cultivate these partnerships only a few years after starting Bright Pink?
We are so grateful to have the opportunity to partner with some of the world’s most prestigious brands in order to help young women at unexpected moments and inspire them to take action. While it sounds cliché, strategic networking is really what was responsible for helping us open doors at many of these great companies. Women who were moved to want to do more for Bright Pink began to champion our organization within their companies and made introductions on our behalf. Once a partnership is established, we work with the brand team to develop comprehensive multi-year programs that are focused on raising funds to reach the most women possible and inspire them to take a proactive approach to their breast and ovarian health. It’s important to ensure that everyone in your life knows about your efforts. The more who people believe in your cause, the more they want to find ways to help.

How would you like to see your career and organization evolve in the years to come?

We are at a different place now than when I started the organization almost six years ago. My job has shifted from me being the one doing and touching each and every element of the organization to now having a team of dedicated, capable staffers who are doing the majority of the hard work. My job is to create opportunities and remove obstacles for them. As CEO, I focus the majority of my efforts externally to ensure we are continuing to increase awareness, establish meaningful partnerships and influence as many young women in their 20s and 30s to be proactive with their breast and ovarian health.

What is the best part of your job? What is the most challenging part?
I truly feel honored to wake up every single day and have the kind of meaning and purpose in my life that most only dream of. I like to say that I am always and never on vacation. It’s hard to draw the line between when my workday ends and my life begins because in many ways, they are one. While the thought of this integration may terrify some, I can’t imagine it any other way. I think one of the harder aspects of my job is that there are always so many balls in the air, and everything moves at a mile-a-minute pace. There is always a lot to stay on top of and ensure nothing slips through the cracks. The HR-related stuff can also be challenging at times. Thank goodness I have a dad who spent thirty years as an HR executive. He is a great coach!

Best moment of your career so far?
Growing our annual operating budget to over one million dollars! We started with nothing. Our first bar party raised $11,000, and just four short years later, we have a substantial operating budget that is funding programs that are saving thousands of lives each day. That moment of crossing the $1 million threshold was really symbolic for me personally. It was when I realized we weren’t just a Chicago-based, small non-profit. We were a growing national movement.

What advice would you give to your 23-year-old self?
Be bolder. Make more mistakes. Fail fast and move forward.